New London Airport’s Capacity: Hugely better value than HS2

The size and location of London’s airports will be of interest to most international travellers, but mostly of course to those to live near them and the passengers who use them.  HS2 is an acronym for High Speed Railway No. 2.

There are five London airports serving international destinations, which most people would think were enough for any city.  However most international travellers would recognise only Heathrow, 15 miles from Westminster in Central London, as London Airport, since three of the other four: Gatwick, Luton and Stansted with one runway each are 30-32 miles from Central London, while the fourth – London City in the heart of the City, has a runway which is too short for long haul jets.  Heathrow has two runways of adequate length, but with 70 million mostly international passengers passing through each year, is sometimes running at 97% capacity.

For this reason a number of the airlines and the international consortium which owns the airport, are keen to build a third runway to relieve current pressures and provide capacity for an expected expansion of numbers over the next 30 years.  This aim is bitterly opposed by local residents who live in several parliamentary constituencies around it or under the near ground flight paths.  As a result, in the usual British government fashion, the decision about future airport capacity has been remitted (in 2012) to a committee.  This has been tasked with assembling evidence about the potential expansion of the current London airports and the possible building of an entirely new one, and making a recommendation, by 2015 no less.  This is timed to be after the next British general election, so the present Prime Minister (David Cameron) will not be embarrassed (he believes) by the proponents or opponents of the recommendations.

The Purpose of Additional London Airport Capacity

The primary purpose is to maintain London as the primary international hub airport in Europe, ahead of France’s Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfort (Germany) and Schiphol (Amsterdam in the Netherlands).  Depending on the precise measures used, Heathrow is the busiest or third busiest airport in the world.  At 134 million passengers (UK 221 million) the London Airport System, comprising Heathrow and the other four airports, is the busiest in the world by passengers and the second (to New York’s system) by aircraft movements.  By any standards it is a very large enterprise which deserves careful planning for the future.

The various options

With its avowed intention of serving the emerging economies of the world, as well as the established ones in Europe and North America, it is likely that business travellers will have first claim on the planners’ attention.  In this case, Gatwick, Luton and Stansted at 30 plus miles from Central London are really ruled out.  Narita in Japan, which opened in 1978 with one runway (now two) and a planned capacity from 2016 of 90 million is 35 miles from Central Tokyo and a constant source of complaints for that reason from passengers and airlines (now mitigated by a high-speed train service).  None of Gatwick, Luton and Stansted airports have train connections to Central London approaching the efficiency of Narita’s.  Gatwick’s road connection takes one through a ten mile tangle of streets in South London, while Luton and Stansted have motorway connections within five miles of Central London.  All three of these airports though look to have little potential for expansion into the long haul business passenger traffic which is the primary objective of the planners to capture.  Their specialised role as charter and holiday flight operators for British travellers seems sensible and long-term sustainable.

The Heathrow Expansion Choice

Given the political/people opposition to a third runway, there seems little chance of Heathrow being selected for expansion by the committee, but it is worthwhile seeing the basis of the opposition to guide the final choice.

London Heathrow sits within a circle of six mile radius, almost completely populated with urban areas containing over 800,000 people.  It also is on the junction of the M25 London orbital motorway (the busiest in Britain) and the M4 (London to South Wales motorway) both of which are undergoing expensive widening to cope with existing traffic.  There are in addition numerous tangles of local roads, and two more major motorway junctions (M25 with M3 and M40) 5 miles away in each direction.  Travelling on the road network into and around Heathrow is already a truly fearsome experience for a visitor.

In this writer’s view and direct experience, Heathrow Airport should be reduced somewhat, not expanded for the comfort and safety of passengers and staff alike.

The Only Airport Choice for London

Tokyo’s decision in the 1960s to build another airport besides the existing Haneda, generated a lot of opposition, but the Japanese authorities did not envisage shutting Haneda – rather that the switch to the new Narita airport would be gradual.

In Britain, by contrast, decision-making on this matter is hobbled by London’s vociferous mayor Boris Johnson, who while now in favour of a new four runway airport on the Thames estuary to the east of London, seems to think that Heathrow should be closed, with all the massive job losses that would entail (around 75,000).

Closing Heathrow is not only unnecessary however, it is positively damaging to London’s ambition to be Europe’s long-term international hub airport system.

When in the 1960s the Japanese planned the new international hub airport at Narita, they did it on the basis that the switch of international airlines from their existing Haneda airport would be gradual.  At 67 million, mainly domestic, passengers in 2012, Haneda (9 miles from Central Tokyo) is almost as busy as Heathrow (71 million) and has a planned capacity from 2016 of 90 million.  Narita (35 miles from Central Tokyo) opened with one runway in 1978, which by 1992 was handling 22 million passengers.  In 2002 a second runway opened and a third is now planned.  Most big operators, BA, AA, Emirates, KLM, etc. use Narita following near seamless transitions from Haneda.

While the analogies with London’s situation today are not exact, they surely point the way towards an attractive solution to its airport problem at Cliffe, 25 miles east of Central London, on the Thames estuary.  This has excellent transport links: 5 miles to the M2/A2 link to the London Orbital (M25), London and Dover; 5 miles to the Ebbsfleet junction on the Eurotunnel line to the Continent; a direct rail link (2 miles) to the London Crossrail terminus at Abbey Wood.  To these advantages can be added a gradual reduction in Heathrow usage from a dangerously high 97% of capacity today to say 75% over ten years with a consequent reduction in noise for local residents in the densely populated surroundings.  The international architects Foster and Partners have already proposed a four runway airport at Cliffe.

Broadly, Heathrow, which now has a non-stop underground railway link to Central London, would continue to handle domestic and Western Hemisphere flights, while Cliffe would gradually, as runways were built, handle the expanding Eastern Hemisphere traffic.  Both airports would be effectively linked by Crossrail as one system, as Narita-Haneda will soon be.

HS2: High Speed Train Link from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds

HS2 has been endorsed by the present British government as in some way helping to regenerate the North of England.  Its route is planned to go through some of the most luscious countryside in England.  Its proponents claim it will reduce journey times from London to Birmingham (100 miles) by about 10 minutes.  Its first estimated cost was £32 billion, recently revised to £42 billion.  The Institute of Economic Affairs has today (19th August 2013) published an estimate of £80 billion or about £250 million for each mile of track.  This figure includes the tunnels, access roads and bridges, plus the compensation estimated to be needed to buy off the railway’s opponents along some of the most expensive rural real estate in Britain.  There is zero prospect of private capital for this venture which is seen by many as a colossal political vanity project. The only high speed railway that Britain has built (HS1), from the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone to Central London, cost £6 billion for 67 miles (£90 million per mile).

Cost of Cliffe Airport

Unlike a railway, a four runway airport can be realised in stages.  Once one terminal building and, in this case, the relatively short road links to existing motorways are built, the first runway can begin to earn its keep, easily up to say 30 million passengers as did Narita.  At this level, it would be earning its owners perhaps £1 billion in landing and take-off fees, easily sufficient to obtain loan capital for future expansion.

The cost to the public purse of the first stage should not exceed about £12 billion, much of which would be recouped on sale to the private sector.  The regeneration and employment benefits to the south side of the Thames estuary would be real and big, stretching as far as Rochester, Gillingham, Chatham, Sittingbourne and Sheerness, ancient ports in need of a 21st century boost.

To build London (Cliffe) instead of HS2 really is a no-brainer.  In fact for half the money not spent on HS2, the whole of the railway network between Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester could be electrified.

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